College admissions scandal: Why the meritocracy should look in the mirror

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

For one day last week, a divided country was briefly united — in outrage — at the college admissions scandal implicating dozens of wealthy parents (including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman) who were accused of bribing and cheating their children’s way into some of America’s elite universities.

To impoverished and minority students, and those who advocate for them, this was further proof of what they already knew: The system is rigged against them.

But there was another group even more affronted by the scandal: the educated, professional, upper-middle class, whose self-image is bound up with the idea that their success is based on their own merit and hard work. (We’re looking at you, Santa Monica. Also River Oaks, Evanston and Park Slope.)

Harvard Business School, Boston, Mass. (Getty Images)

I know because I’m part of that class — and their sense of shock and anger has been filling my Facebook feed for days now.

“I am at a total loss for words,” wrote a fellow Princeton graduate who lives in one of California’s priciest tech hubs.

“It's so gross,” a Middlebury alum replied.

“Signs of the corrupt, rotten, decadent state of morality within America’s elite today,” added another Princeton graduate, who also attended L.A.’s elite Harvard-Westlake prep school. #WeAreRome.”

These are the meritocrats who swear by the same standards of status and achievement that drove parents to hire college-prep crook Rick Singer in the first place: elite school, elite job, elite ZIP code, elite life.

Yet because members of the upper-middle class are not Hollywood stars who can afford to pay $500,000 to have their kids falsely classified as University of Southern California crew recruits, they instead read the nauseating news, hate-share it with their friends, and return to their elite schools, elite jobs, elite ZIP codes and elite lives more certain than ever that while “truly” rich people simply buy their way to the top, upper-middle class strivers like them earned their place.

We never bribed anyone, the upper-middle class can tell itself. We never cheated. We played by the rules. And we succeeded.

Or, as author Charles Leerhsen (who like most Americans did not go to Harvard) wrote on Twitter:

But there’s a problem with this sort of self-congratulatory thinking, and it’s a problem that goes much deeper than the usual critique of the meritocracy that’s been making the media rounds this week: that “parents pay for their children to attend elite educational institutions, albeit in ways that are legal, all the time — by making a major donation, say, or simply by hiring an SAT tutor,” as Molly Roberts writes in the Washington Post.

The real problem with the meritocracy isn’t that some small number of privileged people use their resources, legally or illegally, to game an otherwise fair college-admissions process. The problem is that the entire system that leads up to college and extends far beyond it — from education to housing to taxes — is designed to unfairly preserve the privileges of a much larger and more consequential group of people than television stars and hedge fund operators.

Forget the “1 percent.” Think the “20 percent” instead, i.e., the upper middle class. To benefit, they don’t have to cheat. They don’t have to pay. They don’t even have to realize they’re benefitting from a system that rarely asks them to sacrifice anything on behalf of the middle class they profess to belong to but actually have little in common with.

Why? Because it’s not the exceptions — like Loughlin, or even the people that have buildings on campus named after them — that make a mockery of the meritocracy. It’s the rules.

And the more attention we pay to the former, the more we risk neglecting the latter.

Consider the seemingly simple question of where you live. As Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, pointed out in his recent book “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It,” housing may feel like a matter of personal preference, but really it’s the product of a much larger and more pernicious set of forces.

Starting in the 1930s, with race-based redlining and continuing more recently with exclusionary zoning practices, the government has long encouraged the upper-middle class to carve out its own residential enclaves. And “since schools typically draw from their surrounding area,” Reeves explained in a 2017 New York Times essay that accompanied his book, “the physical separation of upper-middle-class neighborhoods is replicated in the classroom” — which in turn perpetuates educational advantages (and disadvantages) across generations.

At the same time, good schools “make the area more desirable, further inflating the value of our houses” while “the federal tax system gives us a handout, through the mortgage-interest deduction, to help us purchase these pricey homes” — homes that eventually serves as vehicles for passing on wealth.

The end result, Reeves concluded, is that “for the upper middle classes, regardless of their professed political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.” Operating with “ruthless efficiency,” he wrote, “the American class reproduction machine” mocks the “veneer of classlessness” that is part of America’s founding mythology.

And the inequities only widen once race, gender, and sexual orientation are factored in.

The statistics bear this out. Everyone knows that the “1 percent” has been hoarding a greater and greater share of the nation’s economic pie. Less familiar is the fact that since 1979, households in the next 19 percent have seen their pretax income grow by nearly $3 trillion — roughly the same amount as the lower 80 percent of households combined. (Today’s “19 percent” earn about $120,000 to $420,000 per year.) A majority of children born into the top 20 percent, meanwhile, will stay there; economic mobility in the United States is now lower than in most other developed countries. College admissions reflect this opportunity gap, with 70 percent of the students in the nation’s 200 most competitive schools hailing from the top quarter of the income distribution.

Want an example? Take me. As my Facebook feed swelled with comments about the college admissions scam, I started to think about how I’ve internalized a similarly self-flattering story: My parents worked in public schools! In special-education! Their grandparents were ethnic immigrants! What could be more middle-class than that?

But then I thought about the leafy South Jersey suburb I grew up in, and the good, safe public schools I attended, and the money my mother inherited from her childless aunt, earmarked for education, and how that money paid my Princeton tuition. I thought about the modest retirement-community townhouse my dad and his brothers sold when my grandfather died, and how my dad passed his share of the proceeds on to me as a down payment for a Brooklyn apartment, and how we sold that apartment for a profit and used those proceeds to buy a small house in a good school district in Los Angeles, and how that house appreciated so much in three years that we could afford to buy a bigger house when our kids came along ... and so on.

Ultimately, I thought about the unseen infrastructure that made this upward trajectory so frictionless for me, a straight white male, that I barely even noticed it at work. I could easily assume my lot in life was all the result of my own doing — if I didn't think too hard about it.

For decades, American politicians have done little to address my class’s power grab; in fact, they’ve enabled it. Republicans, of course, have obsessed over slashing high-end taxes and shrinking the social safety net. But while Democrats have largely resisted policies that would help the rich and hurt everyone else, they haven’t paid much attention to what’s happening with the 19 percent.

Gary Hart and Bill Clinton. (Photos: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The reason is that Democrats have become an ideologically upper-middle class party wedded to a large minority base. In 2012, Barack Obama won the 50 most-educated counties in the nation by 17 percentage points, according to an analysis by Nate Silver; four years later, Hillary Clinton took them by 26 points. Gone are the days when the Democratic platform was dominated by blue-collar concerns. Starting in the 1970s, a post-New Deal generation of politicians — Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, the neo-liberals and New Democrats — steered the party toward a more moderate, market-friendly agenda meant to appeal to the college-educated, baby-boomer professionals who now constituted its primary class constituency (and donor pool). Free trade. Financial deregulation. Welfare reform. Public-private partnerships. Technocratic “innovation.”

As a result, Democrats have gotten used to assailing the superrich while asking little of those right below them on the income ladder. When Obama and Clinton proposed tax cuts in 2008, they both used $250,000 as the upper limit of the middle class; Obama then delivered a tax cut for everyone below that threshold. (Clinton and Bernie Sanders used the same definition in 2016.) In reality, however, the ceiling of the middle class is about half as high: about $125,000 per year, pretax. As for all of the other policies that primarily, even exclusively, serve to solidify the status of people making more than $125,000 — the mortgage-interest handout, college-savings plans, legacy admissions, exclusionary zoning — Democrats have largely steered clear or backed down in the face of upper-middle-class opposition.

There are signs this may be changing in the face of challenges too big to address solely with upper-crust tax hikes: global warming, universal health care, accelerating income inequality. As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt recently noted, “Kamala Harris’s big tax cut applies only to families making less than $100,000. Elizabeth Warren’s child-care proposal delivers 99 percent of its benefits to the bottom 90 percent of earners, according to Moody’s Analytics. [And] the housing plans from Harris and Cory Booker give all their benefits to the bottom 90 percent, according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Photo: Elise Amendola/AP)

Even so, the ire of Americans — as demonstrated by the schadenfreude around the college bribery scandal, or the interest in Warren and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s wealth-tax proposals — is still directed at the tippy top.

Make no mistake: The bribery and cheating ring described by prosecutors was a disgrace, and if the accounts are true, the participants deserve shaming and punishment under the law.

But the real issue with the so-called meritocracy isn’t a few crimes here and there. It’s the larger, much less visible system that props it up and perpetuates it while persuading its beneficiaries that they’re succeeding all on their own. Rather than gazing upward in self-satisfied disgust, those beneficiaries might want to gaze in the mirror — and ask whether they too are to blame.

That’s what I’ll be doing.

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